a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving janfor the Life
of Janice Gail Kittleson Kelly

February 23, 1932
+
September 30, 2017

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23;
from Hebrews 13; Luke 14:16-23

 

I need to begin this sermon by asking the obvious question: am I the only one who’d prefer to be eating banana bread right now?

I know I’m not alone in this and assume many of you got to experience and enjoy plenty of banana bread from Jan. She not only had creativity in what went into them—my fondness was for pumpkin pecan. Or maybe it was for cranberry orange. Well, it’s tough to say for sure—but besides the varieties, there’s the quantity. She was sure prolific! I marvel that she took the time for all that baking day after day, and the time for shopping that went along with it, and especially the time for deliveries to family and friends and the fire station and those loaves that even found their way toward me.

Something of that kindness and generosity is what I’m centrally holding onto for today.

Much more that could be said about Jan’s life. Maybe most significant are her years at the Forest Products Lab. Or maybe we’d focus on the relationships she developed out of that work, including friendships that abide still long after retirement. That JBJ group (for “Jan’s Birthday Junket”) formed with a bang to celebrate Jan’s 50th with an outing to Dolores Gust’s cottage, plus stops for refreshments along the way and ever since.

But it wasn’t all fun and games and happy hour. Far from it, because Jan also got a group committed to helping at WilMar center in serving monthly meals to hungry people in a way that’s continued on for more than three decades and been recognized in many ways all over the city and beyond.

And that’s just one notable way Jan’s care and sense of charity and sharing of wellbeing extended to those around her. There were cancer walks and Art Fair on the Square and baby blankets and blood donations and on and on in ways she raised money and volunteered. And pfeffernusse cookie dough for St. James Catholic Church, plus so much else she shared and offered to family and friends and casual acquaintances and strangers.

And, of course, the banana bread. Loaves and loaves, filling and enriching many lives, as well as (of course) many bellies. I mention that bread and hold it centrally in these days for three reasons.

The first reason is to mark that generosity. I don’t do that just to compliment Jan or celebrate her good works. I believe it is important to highlight that characteristic because it is godly, because she was Christlike, acting in a way that revealed God’s goodness in our lives.

Some of that is highlighted in the language of our second Bible reading, that this mutual love of our neighbors, the hospitality and kindness even to strangers, is to entertain angels unawares. And sharing what we have and doing good is a sacrifice pleasing to God.

I don’t really expect that Jan did all of this so she could please God, nor even that she felt like it was much of a sacrifice. I expect it flowed from her almost naturally. And that’s a little more in character and in line with how the Gospel reading portrayed the God whom we know embodied in Jesus. With abundant goodness, overflowing generosity, unconditional love. In the story from Jesus, this God is so eager to share blessing and celebration that offering goodness doesn’t need to be coerced. Rather, it is receiving the goodness that is compelled in rounding up people for the banquet.

Jan, too, could have more goodness and generosity to share than we even had been prepared to receive. I continued to learn from that, not only to benefit with another loaf of tasty banana bread, but by understanding something deeper and richer about Jesus and about our God through Jan. As she gave banana bread to me, she hardly even knew me to begin with and had no reason to like me and I offered nothing in return. In that, she was embodying for me the love and care of God who continues giving and blessing and sustaining and loving, even when I don’t deserve it and give nothing in return. It’s a true sense of being cherished, as Jan would regularly say, “I love you. I like you, too.”

Having valued that faithful reminder then points to a second reason I mention Jan’s generosity and banana bread: it’s a sign of missing her. Jean, her twin sister and best friend, the one who may be missing her most of all in these days, said there had been some question about having banana bread at lunch today. But she said she hadn’t saved any of Jan’s loaves and any other wouldn’t be quite the same thing.

There’s something as we go without, as we miss those deliveries and the joyful gift of a treat, as we lack that sacramental reminder of the character of Jesus, all reminding us we miss Jan. We shouldn’t fail to recognize that in these days. Sometimes in small ways and sometimes enormous life-altering fractures and gaps, we are not the same as we were. Things are different without Jan. Death is wrong that way. It is not as it should be. We lament and grieve, we are sad and hurt, and we also hope.

And that leads to the third reason I’m holding onto the idea of Jan and banana bread these days, because it indicates something more. It isn’t just her own generosity that reminded us of God’s love. It’s not only what she gave while she was with us. It’s also much more broadly that she, too, receives.

The point of the parable from Jesus wasn’t just as a sign of feeding hungry people or an instruction that it’s good to share. It was a word about looking ahead, about God’s abundance that pulls you in from being lost and left out, that won’t forget about you and won’t let the celebration go on without you. This is the God who prepares a table before you, even surrounded by your enemies, to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This is the banquet promised in Isaiah, when we’ll be gathered together for a feast of rich foods, of well-aged wine, maybe of some JBJ cocktails, with unending goodness, of reunions with all those we miss and have said goodbye to and buried, with Jan, and—just maybe—with some banana bread.

 

Advertisements
Standard

All Saints Sunday / God Speaks to Elijah

sermon on 1st Kings 19:1-18
It’s hard to feel alone and have to carry on.

That is my first feeling on this All Saints Sunday, not to give thanks, not of celebration or praise, not of hope or blessing. I first feel the hardness, the lament at being left alone, the clear preference for it not to be this way.

Those people who have left me behind, those from our congregation who died, especially Eileen, John, and Lynne, those other funerals, the deaths we’re remembering today, parents and grandparents, siblings and sons, aunts and nephews, old friends, and at least one classmate, and dogs and cats, the broken community, and all the other losses we continue to bear with us—even when it wasn’t totally tragic and we might admit that the end was a relief, that suffering was over, that the wait had been too long, still I’m not ready to call that my preference. Even when the routines were difficult and existence itself uncertain, still mostly I could keep going in those relationships. In no case am I ready to be done being with the person, sharing life with them. I would rather it not be over. Even when it was a good goodbye, I don’t like goodbyes.

While we talk about a hello on the other side of this, about reunion, about being together again, while we confess our hope in life to come, in resurrection, and I cling to that hope, sometimes desperately, sometimes tenuously, mostly enthusiastically…I believe, and I believe it will be so unbelievably good…but still for this moment that later promise doesn’t sweep me into eternal joy, but feels like a shabby consolation prize. Even expecting God’s ultimate love and goodness, when confronting loss and grief and sorrow and death, it can be hard to see. It’s hard to believe when we’re feeling lonely, and hard to carry on. What we’ve known and trusted and loved about life is missing, and our lives are so dependent on relationships that when those are gone, it’s tough to know how to proceed, what to do next, even how to get up and get going in the morning.

In a way, this is what we hear of the prophet Elijah. Not exactly because of the death of loved ones, but still he is feeling alone, abandoned, diminished, with that accompanying uncertainty of how to proceed.

In Elijah’s case, he tries not carrying on. He’s reasonably running away. This is a veteran prophet, seen even by Jesus as the greatest in the Bible, and yet he’s ready to give up. He’s afraid and frustrated and is just trying to get away from it all. But, of course, a change in scenery doesn’t help, since it’s the nagging self-doubt and internal questions that hound after him. He’s so done he even asks to die. “I’m no better than my ancestors,” he says.

That points to earlier weeks in the Narrative Lectionary, of Elijah’s ancestors wandering in that wilderness. They were freed from slavery in Egypt, but didn’t find the readiness to live into their purpose. They still doubted God’s goodness for them. They kept looking back, as if there were no forward.

Like for those ancestors, then, God’s most basic work is in ongoing sustenance. God provided manna to the hungry complaining travelers in the wilderness. God provides a cake or maybe Palestinian taboon flatbread to Elijah to give him strength for the journey. God sustains you, even as you confront your doubts and feeling lost and not knowing where you need to go next or even if you can take the first step. As you gather at this table this morning, you are assured in the smallest bite of bread of God’s presence with you, God’s blessing for you, God’s life within you. And as you go out from this table to all the other morsels and meals, the bites of food and the breaths of fresh air, the places you sleep and the encounters when you awake, in all of that, you have a never-failing reminder of God sustaining you.

And yet that still may not be enough. The wilderness wanderers groused about manna. Elijah didn’t want to go on, so why would he want strength for the journey? It may not offer you any certainty, either.

So Elijah goes to Mount Horeb, where God had commissioned Moses, speaking from a burning bush to reveal God’s identity and purpose for liberation. In parts of the story the lectionary bypassed, it also says this was the mountain where God spoke amid smoke and lightning with thundering sounds, to give Moses the 10 Commandments so the people could live together well. Also on that mountain, Moses asked to see God directly, and God tucked Moses’ face into a cave and passed by, so Moses could turn to see the back side of God.

Well, that’s the cave where Elijah goes. He’s sustained for the journey by the food, but still isn’t sure why or what. He keeps feeling desperate loneliness and lack of direction. Maybe he has circled back to Mount Horeb to seek some assurance of purpose, to rediscover who God is and what that means. Maybe he needs a burning bush. Maybe he would like a clear command. Maybe he wants to see God. Maybe he longs for a Moses moment. And maybe you, too. For clear revelation. For something that makes a difference. To know that God is on the scene and doing something about it.

That is apparently about to happen in the story. At Mount Horeb, Elijah’s in the right spot for a big vision, for God to show up miraculously. Then come what the insurance industry still tries to convince us are “acts of God”—the earthquakes and hurricanes and lightning and raging fire. Certainly God didn’t avoid such phenomena in other places in the Bible. But just as those have at best an ambiguous message for us—more of destructive power than divine power—here, the cataclysmic events don’t reveal God. They don’t help Elijah.

Instead, finally, after the bombast and spectacle, comes nothing. A sound of sheer silence. Or a still small voice, a gentle whisper, calm and subdued, thin and quiet, a soft murmuring sound. These are all translations of this little phrase. This is God’s presence in a non-obvious way, and with it the question: “What’re you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah, still stuck in his fearful uncertainty repeats his feeling of loneliness. “I alone am left.”

God contradicts Elijah. It’s an odd consolation, perhaps. It isn’t dismissive that everything is going to be okay. Neither does it overturn the problem, for miracles to reverse Elijah’s fortunes. It’s a deeper, quieter, more lasting assurance that Elijah isn’t alone, that he can take the next steps, and, beyond that, God’s work will continue.

Admittedly, Elijah is sent to anoint not only his own successor to carry on the work, but with planned nastiness of regime change and brutal international politics against a tyrant ruler. But even amid those large scale words of war, the more important word—the quieter, again less obviously visible, but more lasting assurance—is that Elijah is far from alone; there are 7000 around him also going ahead with God’s goodness.

This communion of saints is why we gather here today, a brief pause, expecting God to whisper the reminder that you are not alone. As isolating and tragic as grief is, as desolating and difficult as confronting death can be, as much as only you know your loss and how that cannot be restored, and the solitary feeling of abandonment inflicted on you, still you are not alone. You are with this gathering of others, these also who are blessed and sustained by God to keep going.

And not just your own losses, but in larger tragedies and ugliness of violence and politics, you can continue striving, knowing that others—far more than the 7000—also carry on with this quiet, deep, sometimes fearful and often unspectacular blessedness.

Then there’s the still bigger picture of generations. As important as your work is, others were before and will come after us. The church of Jesus, this community of God, the work of God’s blessing and against tyrants in the world, this will persist. It does not stand or fall in our lives, in our dedication or lack of passion. God’s work will continue. That is good news, too.

And, finally, though without the obvious ways you’re told God could appear, nevertheless in your moments of sheer silence and deep, lonely, longing, God quietly is present for you in life now and forever. This isn’t a fantasy of miracles, not a dismissive faith that everything is okay because heaven is waiting. This today, amid grief and confronting the hardness, is the whispered presence to sustain you and give you strength for the journey.

Standard

The King & You

sermon for Christ the King Sunday

(Luke23:33-43; Colossians1:11-20; Psalm46; Jeremiah23:1-6)
I’d like to begin introducing you to Alexa Rose, her parents Danielle and Ramon and their family, to get ready for her baptism and to orient us amid this Christ the King Sunday.

The odd connection is Alexa’s grandmother Robin used to work with a man who became a church music director with whom I later worked. Tracing that forward some number of years, past Danielle’s graduation party (which, if I recall, was one of Ramon’s first visits to Wisconsin), beyond that, I had the privilege of officiating at their wedding, fue la primera y la única vez que hablé español en una boda.

Later, when Alexa’s brother Leo was only a newborn, came the misfortune of presiding at the funeral of Danielle’s little brother DJ. He was a delightful young man, with great care and a huge smile and the enormous tragedy of an addiction from which he couldn’t escape in this life. A couple months after that, yearning for something positive, we celebrated Leo’s baptism and how blessing continues in our lives. Danielle’s father, Darrel, polished the baptismal font to sparkling. Yet to come, he and I have long talked about doing some icefishing together.

So there’s a lot there. In one respect, that’s the kind of stuff I’m honored to anticipate sharing with you, the big celebrations, and hopefully not too much tragedy, and all kinds of really regular moments and conversations and details.

Much larger and more important, though, than me as a pastor who happens to intersect with your life is the notion today that Christ is the King of this. As King or Lord, it means all of this falls within the realm of Christ, under the influence of his reign and his jurisdiction. He has claim that extends over and around all of these moments.

In Alexa Rose’s baptism is the declaration that nothing in her life will be separated from Christ or left outside of his blessing: her delights in her big brother and her smiles at her parents. Their efforts in so many ways to keep her secure—in providing a home and working long hours and throwing birthday parties and struggling against society when its racism or sexism or tribalism would threaten her wellbeing. Christ is in connections with grandparents and the guidance and care of her baptismal sponsors. All of this is held and nurtured by Christ.

And the promise continues far beyond what we know today, as she grows and meets new friends at school and discovers what her interests and passions and abilities are and as she begins making choices in her life (whether good or questionable, as all of us experience), on through years and decades.

We know this love and blessing of Christ was with Ramon and Danielle at their wedding, but we also confess with sure and certain hope that even death couldn’t separate DJ from love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus. Christ as King must be amid threatening politics just as surely as icefishing. Today we identify that for Alexa Rose, through the thick and thin of it, through the sorrows we’d so much like to spare her and the triumphs we wish heartily for her, all the way to her final breath.

And then, even as today we’re holding that very moment for a saint at the opposite end of life’s spectrum and saying goodbye to Eileen Bolstad and commending her out of what our care could accomplish, releasing her fully into the eternal care of Christ’s embrace, even in this moment of death we trust a promise of Paradise, that that last enemy will be overcome, and the love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus will continue.

So as we trust this for Alexa and for Eileen and as we are able to hold onto it for ourselves, let’s notice that in calling Christ the King, rather than it being a similarity to our typical rulers, we should hear a contrast. When we say Christ is King, we very particularly mean he’s not like other kings, those who rule and control and disregard our lives for their own benefit or whims. This title, exemplified by one being tortured and executed on a cross, clearly is not trying to claim Jesus is the mightiest or the bossiest. He’s not an authoritarian who always gets his way. He’s not in a posh palace separated from the realities of our life.

Embodied in his crucifixion, Christ’s kingship is precisely exemplary in patient endurance for reconciliation, is with suffering, knowing the realities of life, not separated from those mundane and difficult details of your existence. He is a King who can relate to you or, to say it stronger, is related to you, your brother. (That also has the implications that you are entitled to your inheritance as part of the royal family! That focus will have to wait for another day, but please don’t lose track of it!)

Another aspect of Christ being King also contradicts a common notion about faith and belief, and that’s in what makes him your king. Just as it wasn’t the ironic inscription on the cross that made him a king, neither was it by popular acclaim. It’s not that you invite him into your life. It isn’t the degree to which we attribute credit or how we pray or how we might try to claim favor. Jesus doesn’t need your confidence in order to be king. His work and his reign aren’t dependent on you or subservient to you like that. Though he’s a servant king, he’s not at your beck and call or waiting to do your bidding.

He—and he alone among all who would be called king—holds the role by divine right, in accomplishing God’s will. In the language of Colossians, this extraordinary passage that portrays for us the fullest widespread concept of a cosmic Christ—a king of the universe—the thrones and dominions and rulers and powers are subject to him not because they’re reporting for duty, but since his realm encompasses all.

So, in a huge distinction, while he doesn’t cause sin, he must in the end still be responsible for it. Tragedies and addictions aren’t attributed to him but neither are they outside of his realm. Even the worst corruption and decay and death, the nastiest and most virulent attitudes, the fiercest exclusionisms, the ugliest religious hatred, the most careless environmental destruction all fall within his redemption, are embraced by his healing love, are purged with the breath of resurrected life.

That’s for us, too. For Alexa at her baptism and Eileen at her dying and for your lives overcome with worry, yet bound in his kingdom, we have to confess it is vital he makes the promise good forever in baptism, because he’s not the king we’d choose. He isn’t the leader we’d like. He wouldn’t win elections or popularity contests.

Imagine and sense, if you can, some of the despair for the women disciples at the foot of the cross and those men who looked on from a distance. Imagine and sense their loss, their disappointment, their worry. It would be much more appealing to have a glorious and triumphal ruler, who shattered the cross, uprooted its deadliness, saved himself, then swung out with a force-field that brought his opponents to their knees and protected his chosen ones and helped us always to escape the worst scenarios.

That’s not Christ our King.

Our model is, yes, compassion and sacrifice and a long arc of justice. But the most important and most difficult word today of Christ as King is so countercultural you’ve likely hardly heard it in recent weeks: forgive. We may be surprised or even skeptical that it should be part of baptism for precious little Alexa Rose, but she’ll need it, and Christ will still be for her then. And as it sets her on the course for receiving forgiveness, it also prepares her to be forgiving.

This is the challenging reconciliation that is at the heart of Christ’s kingdom and stands so starkly in contradistinction to all other authorities and rampant blame. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” We are people striving to embody God’s justice for our world in these days, but our identity is not just in trying to do better, much less in feeling better about what we’re doing or more self-righteous. We are people challenged as we give our lives in sharing this prayer: Father, forgive. Forgive their selfishness. Forgive their prejudice. Forgive their violence, their greed. Forgive their hatred. Forgive their incompetence or ignorance, that they don’t know what they’re doing. Forgive their disruptiveness and destructions. Forgive their incivility and immorality. And me, too, forgive me.

Standard

I Break for Jesus

“Lives Matter” sermon

(featuring Psalm13; Colossians1:15-28; Genesis18:1-10a; John10:11-18)
It seems obvious we can’t have a vacation from church because our lives won’t accept that pause.

A couple examples: I was in Hawaii, ready to play cards with family when news came about Orlando. And I was eating lunch when I heard of Philando Castille’s death in my seminary neighborhood. I was starting my weekend with a movie on the couch with Acacia when my phone buzzed about Dallas, visiting my mom as the Fort McMurray fire blazed, and was going to the baseball game when learning about France this week.

We can hold onto only so many of those moments, but nevertheless our routine lives become marked by them. Even as you’re adding a new Dallas tragedy to these layers, you may still hold the memory of where you were when President Kennedy was shot. I can picture in elementary school where as a 1st grader I knew something wasn’t right when the Challenger space shuttle blew up. I recall the seminary classroom on 9/11 when the first tower had been hit and a professor suggested we might want to be in chapel worship that day.

She was right. We continue to need this. This is where we come for good news, for a change. This may be where we look for answers. We may expect to find something different, hope amid despair, find life amid death. We may seek community, since “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

Okay, those were theme song lyrics to the old TV show “Cheers.” I know that reference to a bar may not seem to fit the seriousness I was mentioning, but scan the obituary pages these days and notice the memorial services at a bar, or at a botanical garden or park. We have to ask if church is just another place to commiserate, with beautiful distractions in music or moments of quiet. If so, is this any different than those other places that are made to bear grief and sorrow and the longing for sympathy in these days?

Though church functions well in those quote-unquote “standard” ways, we have the burden of admitting that, in worse moments, we can end up hypocritical and less engaged in fixing the world and sharing love than we followers of Jesus should be.

We also have the added theological conundrum when these terrible things happen. A loving God who merely weeps with us wouldn’t seem to be very helpful. But a mighty God who causes catastrophe is left constrained in fear, not worthy of devotion or praise. President Obama’s remarks this week were constructively hopeful, but he phrased recent misfortune in terms that “God has called [the dead officer] home.” I disagree that God is the type to interrupt life with horrendous violence as a means to take us to heaven. But if that’s not what God does, it leaves the question of where God is in these moments, or the still harder wondering if God even exists.

As we’ve said before, though: here we are. We may gather in church intent on continuing to figure this stuff out, on confronting the hard questions. More, in the face of tragedy and sorrow, we not only desire answers when we cry out “why,” but also long for resolutions, for ways to resolve the problems and end the crying. We long not only for less pain, but to be people who can heal.

Yet today we remain hurting people. For this summer, there has been too much hard news, too much sad news and bad news, besides all the personal struggles and sadnesses that wear us down as we bear them. In what’s becoming more devastation than we and our world can handle, we just can’t catch a break. It seems there’s no vacation from all these problems.

That, again and centrally, is why we are here, why—in spite of travels and visitors and all that fills long summer days in often very good ways—why we find ourselves in church. We need a place to pause and collect ourselves. We need some beauty and music to fill our hearts and lungs, inspiring us. We need encouragement. We need the presence of each other, to sort through and talk about this stuff, or sometimes just for a hug or smiling face.

I’d contend, though, that church is not exactly a place of answers. If we yearn for “why” questions to get simple explanations like “because of God,” our lives, our world, and certainly the mystery of faith are more complex than that. As hard as we may work, it’s no easy fix. As powerful as the love and life of God is, even resurrection doesn’t eliminate the sting of death we face.

Amid complexities we hold as we gather here, we don’t claim total good in ourselves or condemn others as ultimately evil. We don’t say Muslims are bad or police are against us or that all trucks are dangerous weapons. We refuse such categorical fears. Even amid the deepest darkness, we strive to find and name the light. We long for, but also expect and trust redemption, both consistently and impatiently.

This is the faithful and paradoxical language of the Psalm chosen for this service. It is among the Bible’s vital reminders that faith isn’t being happy all the time, not blind rationalizing that God has a bigger plan, or anything like that. The Psalm gives us language to complain, to lament, to cry out “How long?! How long must I bear pain and sorrow?” And yet it goes on to sing, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” Even as we gather today with too much grief, wondering when and how it will all be over, still we practice singing, with joy, trusting love that endures.

Another of the complex distinctions in the heated mix this week is the skirmish about #BlackLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter. Held by boundless compassion, we know these can be both true and also silly to squabble about. A child who skinned her knee needs different care in that moment than another. Or, in Bishop Mary’s example, the fire department treats all houses as worth their attention, but when a house is on fire, that one matters. Again, we can say that God loves everybody, but sometimes when it’s miserable and you feel horrible and you wonder if everything is out to get you, you need to know that God loves you.

This fits the lectionary reading from Colossians assigned for today, which essentially says “All Lives Matter.” But it isn’t only meaning multiracial of black, brown, and white skin tones. It isn’t limited for those killed on duty or those killed by those on duty. This stretches wider. Christ Jesus is making amends for all creation, reconciling “all things.” This proclaims an enormous vision of God’s work. Examining the expanse of this in terms of these days, it says that American Lives Matter and French Lives Matter, that Christian Lives Matter and Muslim Lives Matter, that Black Lives and Blue Lives Matter, that victims’ lives matter while terrorist lives also matter, and cancer lives and homeless lives and poor lives and wealthy lives all matter. Old lives and young lives matter. Plus polar bear lives matter. Monarch butterfly lives matter.  Democratic lives and Republican lives matter. Each and every one of these is worth announcing, for its own value. The huge scale of all these lives matter, and your small life still matters to God. None of these are excluded, and they’re also brought together in reconciliation, out from deadliness and hostility and competition to new life and peace in Christ Jesus. It’s among the Bible’s most stunning readings (though it’s not perfect). It’s an important promise for us to cling to in these hard days. The place of God’s amazing work in Jesus isn’t just inner spirits or after death but is spread through every complex intricacy and relationship of creation.

That points us to some surprises. We know that prejudice cannot suffice as the end expectation, that God’s work continues and may pop up where we weren’t looking. This is what’s in the lectionary reading from Genesis: Sarah and Abraham receive strangers with hospitality, and then also receive unexpected good news and joy. We meet and receive God’s presence in people and places we know to look, in bread and wine where Jesus declares he will be found. But God may also show up with strangers and outsiders and unfamiliar faces. Amid or underneath any of the desperate circumstances around us, then, we may keep searching to find revealed the surprising good news of God’s work.

Life can’t be defined by tragedies, then, because the tragedies begin to be redeemed in the ordinary moments, these summer days, the very places and relationships you find yourself when the shockwaves hit. God is deep in all those events and commonplaces.

In the Gospel chosen for this service, Jesus the Good Shepherd similarly says there are other sheep not of this fold. His caring presence is not restricted to those who gather for church or even for the human contingent of sheep. Imagine how shocking that would’ve been to those earliest Christians, surrounded by fearful persecutions.

In some parallel way, we keep coming back here for the assurance of this declaration, so critically needed. As we’re surrounded by too much death, Jesus declares his life not stolen, but given. His sacrifice is not a loss of life, but a gift, a gain, a sharing. Different from but so connected to the disasters that have happened, in Jesus is the word that death does not triumph and enmity and hatred will not break our world apart because God will not give up at reconciliation. Unflinchingly, this Good Shepherd won’t abandon you but will go through death to abide in care.

That promise enables us to find relief and encouragement, to be sustained and resilient, to overcome almost overwhelming hopelessness, to find confidence in community, to rejoice in beauty and delight in song. These aren’t distractions or compensations amid the sorrows of life. Flowing out to these days when we seem to face unending sorrow and flowing out across this trembling world—flowing from this heart of God, who in the image of Jesus is revealed as a God of compassion, of care, of love, of life for you, and a God we all need at just such a time as this.

Standard

a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Barbara Ann Allen

29 July 1935 + 26 November 2015

Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 23; Revelation 21:1-7

 

I don’t know much of what to say to start this sermon besides that life sometimes goes how we want it to, and sometimes it doesn’t. At least there seems to have been that mix for Barb, and for you around her.

For the part that goes right, we could hardly find better words than what Justin shared for us from the book of Proverbs. It even wove in words about thread that could make you think of the beautiful Christmas stockings she knit.

But so much more than that is just the concern for life shared that those words spoke and that Barb embodied. Beside those words in our own terminology, the phrase “high school sweethearts” seems like an epitome of things going right, of life being how it should be.

And lasting! What a gift not only that love from early on, but that was together for 60 years of marriage. Through the years, then, you can think of moves to each new place with your career, Bob, and her care to help in succeeding, and establishing a new home and getting settled and making everything right for another new setting in life. Proverbs says we should be certain to praise such a wife, and that is clearly one of the good parts today, in being able to recall and celebrate those parts of life well-lived.

And it wasn’t just as a wife, but also as a mother, and a dear friend, and as a grandmother who cared so much and could be such fun, riding the flume over and over, or traveling with the motorhome, or enjoying sunsets from the houseboat and even daily these last years from home, for that pause to appreciate. These are the things where we truly notice life is going how it should.

But that still leaves us with questions for the other times. Proverbs doesn’t address much of that. It just says “she does good all the days of her life.” But for Barb, those of us who are left behind can’t help but miss her and feel like we wanted more of those good days of her life. We wonder about how surgeries go and what should happen. We think of how our lives go on now without her. There doesn’t seem to be much explanation or clear-cut right answer for all of that.

And there are the things that are so much more complicated. Proverbs said to help the needy, and there’s a detail from Barb’s life: I’ll continue to picture her with the good she was part of in helping out at the Food Pantry. But it was a good that goes along with a bad, trying to alleviate hunger, but we’d have to confess that hunger shouldn’t need to be a problem in the first place.

Some multi-layered complexity goes also with this moment at the end of Barb’s life. Even when we aren’t ready to say good-bye, still she was accepting of the end, ready to be done struggling with too many bad diagnoses and too little energy. Yet her resolution isn’t always ours, as we’re ambushed by what happens in each other’s lives. So we don’t have larger explanations of why she went first, of what happened that she’s gone and we’re still here. And even for her, we have to know the ambivalence, that she really would have loved to be at Jenna’s graduation next month.

For all the right in life that goes how we want it to, and even being able to celebrate and enjoy and remember those many good times, still we can’t just ignore or forget about the other side. Today, at this gathering, we need to be able to address that, too, and need some sort of word for it.

That is where our faith comes in, including the reminders today from our other Bible readings. This life is not only for striving to be happy and helpful through however many days we have. As blessed as this existence God has given us can be, that is not the sum total of what we believe or understand.

The Revelation reading reminds us of what we can look forward to, that there is more to come, that for any of our uncertainties or resentments or sorrows now, for whatever we don’t understand and wish would be different, that in the end we will meet resolution, that God will come directly to be with us and so every tear will be wiped away, and mourning will be no more, and pain will be no more. And all of that because death will be no more.

That is the heart of our faith, the core of what Barb could trust, the promise of resurrection and life to come.

But even now, our faith points us toward something more. Just as God didn’t create us for the all-too-fleeting pleasures of this life only, neither are we just waiting for that eventual day of joy and being brought together again in a heavenly promise. Even for the hard days of life to come in these weeks, even for the sadness and crying and confusion that are part of this time of loss, even for these struggles of the last months for Barb of wearing out and not having doctors be able to do what they wished, for all these moments, this is also the core of our faith, a faith that we remember during this Christmas season identified in God who came to put on our flesh and be Immanuel, God-with-us. From heaven above, Jesus was born to enjoy family and to feast and to be part of this world. But he was also born to know our hurts and our brokenness and our yearnings.

This is what the 23rd Psalm holds all together for us almost as if summarizing: the God who walks along with us, is with us in times of plenty and peacefulness—the sunsets beside calm waters—and just as much accompanies us in the worries and the hardships of shadowy valleys and even going through dying and death. And beyond that, at the end, this God through our risen Lord Jesus will bring us again to our eternal home, to feast in unbroken celebration. In life, in death God abides with you.

Just as you knew the often private Barb through love, so God also is revealed in love that persists, endures, and brings new beginnings.

Standard

Saints, Death, Weeping

sermon for All Saints Sunday (John11:32-44; Isaiah25:6-9; Rev21:1-6a)

A fair question to ask is why in the world would we think of this facing death again today as a joyful festival?

Memories, even of those we really admired as saintly, are helpful and to be cherished, but are no celebration.

On the worse side, some of us can’t walk into church without it calling to mind those we miss. It may be you can’t help but dwell on losses you grieve, the people who shaped you and brought you to church in the first place. Or that one of the last times you were in a place like this was to say goodbye at a funeral service. There are such intense emotions that it’s painful even to come through the doors, that it’s almost too much to face. I understand that, and some of that feeling is exactly what we’re dealing with today.

But before we go into more of that, I also want to put aside a different idea. Some feel uncomfortable in church because of grief and overwhelming sadness. But there are also those who feel uncomfortable at church because they suspect it’s not a place for them. If I could weed out one persistent comment and stop it from crossing people’s minds or lips, it would be the idea of being unwelcome at church or that God would be opposed to you. Too many times to count, I’ve had people say that if they walked into a church, lightning would probably strike or the roof would cave in. It hasn’t happened.

I’m not sure where that view of God comes from or how it gets fueled, but I’d wish never to have to hear it again. Because whatever causes it, that is not the God we have, not the God of the Bible, not the God embodied for us in Jesus. If you think God is out to get you or doesn’t like you or thinks you’re not good enough to be around, then you’ve got the wrong idea of God. Just the reverse, if you’ve got that notion, then God is eager to be with you, already on your side, particularly when things are bad.

That, then, brings us back to the hard confrontation of death today. Being at church can be tough because we face this mostly head on. When you’re watching sports or reading a book or working on a project, mostly you can keep distracted, with death out of your mind. Even following the news—and even when it’s just awful news—still that can mostly seem far away and not need to be dealt with. Even in late autumn days, turning chillier and darker, when trees are getting bare, still we divert our focus to the colors of beautiful leaves. Or we think about compost, and somehow separate that distinction, that leaves break down to become new soil that will nurture future life. That’s a gain, but death in our families isn’t. That kind of death is loss.

At church, we don’t talk around it. We don’t say you need to brighten up and act happy, as if you’re not actually torn up. That’s an important distinction. Sometimes this faith gets manipulated into some sort of antidepressant or motivational poster. God gets misused to whitewash over the pain or to skip ahead. We end up with trite phrases like, “she’s in a better place.” I don’t have to tell you that consolation is crap. For the people around me who have died, the place I want them to be is still with me. That would be better. I’ve also been there with too many of your loved ones whom we’ve placed in the ground, buried in a cemetery, kept in an urn. That’s not a better place. If we ignore that part of our reality then our faith becomes some escapist lie. It isn’t that we don’t hope for more, but if we jump too quickly to the end—or, still worse, if we impose that on others amid the despair of death and brush aside their sorrow, then that is not honestly our faith.

So, again, just as we don’t have a God who is out to punish those who haven’t been in church or feel like they’ve done something wrong, as God won’t ever withdraw a promise of blessing for you, neither do we have some sort of fairy tale God who always has a smile on and watches cute cat videos while ignoring our reality and dreaming that we’re all living happily ever after. That is not our God.

This takes us into our Gospel reading, where Jesus encounters the death of a dear friend, one he loved. Here, as in other places, death makes Jesus angry. It says “he was greatly disturbed.” And then he began to weep. In some versions of the Bible, that is the shortest verse. John 11:35 is only two words: Jesus wept. (There is one other verse that competes for brevity, but we’ll have to come back to that.)

For now, we should probably notice this most encapsulated theological statement of our Scriptures. What does it say to us that the briefest conception of Christ, the most summarized synopsis, the tiniest little kernel we can compress God into is this weeping? I’d say that it focuses our belief on a God of compassion. A God who sympathizes with our hurt and sorrow and pain. A God who is absolutely and utterly with us, in dejection and disappointment and despair. Who laments with us and aches with us. One who knows that death stinks really, really bad. When we face that, it’s right to be sad and broken and confused. We can’t ignore sorrow. So God knows this pain and our longing and our tears. Jesus wept.

It struck me as remarkable this week that when our readings from Isaiah and Revelation tell us that God will wipe away every tear, that that includes God’s own tears. God also longs for something else, the time when mourning and crying and pain will be no more and death will be no more.

Again, we’ll come to that. But we ought to reflect a moment more on this God of compassion, because that identity is both good and bad, to be treasured yet also not fully satisfying.

We know the blessings of sharing in grief, of being able to lean on each other. That’s among the central reasons to gather in church, especially when our lives have been fractured. I heard St. Stephen’s described that way this week, that this community helped in time of loss: in the death of a son, as a husband was struggling with terminal illness. It is the blessing of Bold Café and Soup for Schools groups, this intimate support network that can offer care and be there together in the roughest times. This is part of why it’s important to be invested in the life of the congregation, because this compassion, this shared love and concern, is such a reciprocal relationship of harvesting what you’ve put into it.

To have God identified with such compassion is the ultimate in caring proclamation. More, this love won’t fall apart, is not dependent on your investment in it. God doesn’t get distracted or have to leave to attend to other business; God is with you always. You can always lean on God and share with God. The old song goes:

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!

Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear—

all because we do not carry ev’rything to God in prayer!

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged—take it to the Lord in prayer.

Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?

Jesus knows our ev’ry weakness—take it to the Lord in prayer.

So for one who encounters your suffering with you, it can’t get any closer and more intimate than that.

Yet—and here’s the part that isn’t so satisfying—compassion only goes so far. Misery may love company, but we need some company that doesn’t love misery. It’s good news that God isn’t against you, that—just the opposite—God is with you especially when you really need it. But having a God who knows your sorrow and your longing is not quite enough. You also need a God who can and will do something about it. A God who not only shares your tears but will, indeed, wipe away those tears, and every tear. We have this sense that death shouldn’t happen if the Lord is with us.

At this point, my proclamation to you falters. There’s a hiccup in this good news. God went into death for you, was killed on a cross to destroy death, and rose on the third day to conquer the grave and give you the victory…but, well, this doesn’t exactly feel very victorious or glorious or celebratory at this point. God, it seems, didn’t decide simply to undo death, to erase it, to make everything suddenly better. I don’t like that. I don’t like that we are still here grieving, that we’re stuck with our tears, that we still have to confront death that destroys our good relationships and steals loved ones away from us, or sucks away our own happiness or wellbeing or life.

I can proclaim to you that death is not the end. It has not won. There is more to come. And that changes everything, even if it’s all too eventual and gradual for what we’d wish here and now today. There’s a promise we have now, but we experience it not yet. Jesus rolled away the stone from his loved one’s tomb. His own stone was rolled away on Easter. And no grave will capture or bind you or your loved ones or any of the beloved of God, any of God’s good creation. That is the promise. God will wipe away every tear, and death will be no more. Then we’ll join together at the feast.

Even as we’re still stuck in the messy middle and it can seem so hard to go forward—to face another day, to get out of bed, to hear what the doctor has to say, to deal with our memories, to worry about forgetting, to live in this world—even though that is so much of our reality now, we trust the end of the story. And that changes everything. We don’t need to pretend things are okay when they aren’t, don’t need to stop grieving.

Instead we grieve with hope. I said we’d come back to the other shortest Bible verse. In the original language, there’s a verse that’s shorter than the compassion and shared sadness of “Jesus wept.” It’s not only shorter; it’s a counterpoint that also looks past our present sorrows, since “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans8:18). The shortest verse? “Rejoice always.” (1Thessalonians5:16)

Hymn: In Deepest Night (ELW #699)

Standard

a very little faith

sermon for 28 June 15 (Mark 5:21-43; 2Corinthians 8:7-15; Lamentations 3:22-33)
[Paul tries to encourage generosity, such a simple, benign detail it could get lost amid big stories of the destruction of Jerusalem and health calamities met with miracles. How do we attend to the day-to-day small stuff?]
We’re often told to “think big,” to “imagine a new world,” or to let our dreams soar. Instead today, let’s get small. Let’s for a moment stop dreaming so big and instead shrink our expectations. To say it more precisely, instead of painting in broad strokes, let’s do some fine-tuning of faith.

This idea is probably going to take some explanation. First of all, this is not to state that you cannot change the world but you can change yourself so do that instead. No. As Christians, we are indeed to be mindful and concerned about and working on changing the world, things like ending malaria and world hunger, like war, like billion dollar budgets and centuries old prejudices. And, biggest of all, that we need to reform our lifestyles which are changing the planet and threatening billions of people and the extinction of species. Yeah, this is huge stuff. But this is our territory, and it’s just plain not right to say you can shut off the news and shut out the world and be a happy little Christian on your own.

Neither, as we’ll see, is this getting small about lowering your expectations of God, of what God is capable of and is indeed up to in your life and for your sake. That all stays nearly unbelievably enormous.

Our task today may be to attend to the smaller, less dramatic stuff, too. As an example: we’ve been given terminology by the insurance industry that says natural disasters are “acts of God,” but in this week of Vacation Bible School, we also spent time exploring outdoors because Martin Luther reminded us that God was just as present in the “tiniest tree leaf.” If our eyes are focused only on huge catastrophes, what do we miss in the small scale of God’s presence?

Now, it’s true that the big stuff can open our awareness. Rather than the worst things driving us away from God, instead that may be when we most seek the connection. Sometimes faith finds you in the most frightful moments. In times of tragedy or facing death can be when we’re most likely to wonder where God is and what God means for us, to try to seek a blessing that speaks a strong word against the overwhelming tones of misfortune.

Our 1st reading did that in a massive way, facing the collapse of civilization.  But that scale seems to fit also with our Gospel reading, right? There are these two big, hard circumstances, the woman suffering in the crowd and the father of the sick little girl. It’s tough to say which person is more…well, the first word that comes to mind is desperate. But that’s not exactly it. See, the word “despair” means “without hope,” hopeless, but these two people somehow still do have hope. That’s why they’re seeking Jesus. Maybe this shows us what a fine line it is, between what we hope and where hope seems lost, that narrow cusp between the relief of good news that sustains our lives and the precipice of bad news that ends in sadness. But not needing to live by extremes is part of where we’re headed with all this, that God is not only last minute make-or-break worst-case-scenario deathbed conversion stuff.

At any rate, the two characters in the Gospel reading are both hoping in Jesus. More than the miracle, the focus is that Jesus is amid regular life, so probably best would be for us to notice that these are ordinary people, that there’s no special claim to blessing, nothing to make it earned. Yet we don’t let it stand as regular life; we have a bad tendency to label people by their brokenness. So, in the story one problem is chronic, with physical and social suffering that has persisted for twelve long years. The other is dramatic and acute, a new illness for a young daughter, a crisis moment, needing critical care.

We notice that Jesus responds, that he offers blessing and good news in the face of both of those tragedies. He overcomes suffering.  And this is just what we expect or anticipate or, again, hope for in our lives. When we’re at dead ends or facing death is when we’re accustomed to turning to God, seeking out Jesus, when we expect there might be a word for us at church.

And most definitely you should hear that that is true. The God who brought you into existence, who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, will be at your side in every time of suffering or moment of dread, will never leave you, will never stop loving you, will finally breathe into you the breath of new life that will sustain you forever. That is the promise that holds you, the reality we are all heading toward. In those biggest and worst moments, certainly that word from Jesus has value: “Do not be afraid, only believe.” Life in God has the last word. The exuberant, powerful vitality of the Holy Spirit will always win out.

But the question for today, for our expectations and honing our focus, is what else this means. What about when you haven’t been suffering for twelve years, or when your daughter is not at the point of death? What if the woman approached Jesus because she’d been ill for only six years instead? Or if she occasionally got migraines? Or if she had chronic bad breath? Or if her skin was the wrong color, or her sexual identity was unusual? What if she generally felt unlikeable and awkward in social settings? And what if the father came begging at Jesus’ feet because his daughter hurt her leg, or had a runny nose, or because she wasn’t very good at reading, or because she was scared to get in the swimming pool? Or what if he was concerned about his nephew, or a coworker’s grandkid, or somebody else he’d heard about?

The point is, Jesus isn’t only waiting for the most horrible thing to strike closest to your heart, weighing whether you’ve suffered enough for a miracle. Jesus is not dallying off in heaven through catastrophes and disasters, figuring he’ll take care of you later on and that will redeem the rest of this mess. Instead you may know and trust Jesus is with you through every moment, nearer and striving on your behalf more continuously than the respiration and pulse of your body.

Church, then, is not just another commentator to explain the latest gory terror or civil unrest or personal misfortune. Church is where we’re assured that all is indeed held together in God.

And that has meaning for all the non-crisis times of your life; for nice summer days, for the blah of a work-week, for little frustrations, for all the details of life on this planet, not only at the hospital but also the grocery store. It’s not that everything is petty compared to the immense extremes. We need faith for the small, regular moments, as well, since the whole identity of God in Jesus is that the regular is not petty; ordinary life is important, is blessed, is held in God’s embrace. He came to know simple birth and poverty and lakes and hunger and celebrations and friends and strangers, for a sick woman and a common daughter today, for all the crowds. This is what the life of Jesus was, being there in our very regular moments, with the miracle that life should go on.

This is where Paul hones our focus, refines our attention, directs the living of our faith. This faith is not only for going to heaven when you die. It is also for all the days that you live. So Paul reminds us that for genuine love, Jesus embodied generosity, giving everything for your sake. Held forever in his gracious generosity, filled with his abundantly loving life, this shapes what you’re capable of, what you can do, what fruit you will bear, what is so vitally important. For the Corinthians, it meant the ability to contribute more generously and abundantly to the offering collected to support poor people far away whom they’d never met. That blessing flowed naturally from their connection to Jesus.

For you, I’d expect it would reorient your days, that you have life to share and yourself to give away. It enables you to be patient and diligent, not only briefly relieved or else morose as you’re caught up in the sensationalism of the moment’s news story, not only dawdling after some grand miracle hypothetically to erase the problems, but seeing the kingdom of God breaking into our world and your lives in myriad ways, amid times of excitement and enjoyment, of forgiveness and compassion, of creativity and beauty, of encouragement and trust.

Yes, it is most certainly true that Jesus is your savior in the worst times. But he’s also there for you tomorrow, and also for your children, and for your neighbor, and your dog, and people you’ve never met, and the tiniest tree leaf. This is the lavish abundance of our God whose giving knows no ending.

Hymn: God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending (ELW #678)

Standard